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        Ruben Salazar: Man in the Middle | Lesson Plan: Objectivity and Bias in Journalism

        "Ruben believed in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. You and I know that freedom of speech is limited. You can say anything you want as long as you don't step on some bigshot's toes."

        - Phil Montez Friend/U.S. Commission on Civil Rights

         Ruben Salazar: Man in the Middle, is an investigative look at the life and mysterious death of pioneering journalist Ruben Salazar. At the heart of the story is Salazar's transformation from a mainstream, establishment reporter to primary chronicler and supporter of the Chicano movement of the late 1960s. Killed under mysterious circumstances by a law enforcement officer in 1970, Salazar became an instant martyr to Latinos - many of whom had criticized his reporting during his lifetime. Adding to the Salazar mystique is that the details of how he was killed have been obscured in the ensuing four decades since his death.

        Lesson Summary

        The film Ruben Salazar: Man in the Middle explores the the pioneering journalist's life and death, removing him from the shadows of legend and restoring him to his place in history. The Salazar story had long been considered to be an ethnic story, a regional story," says filmmaker Rodriguez. "But it is much bigger than that. This is a story about a regular guy who, motivated by principle, challenges an abusive authority at great risk to himself - it's a classic American story."

        In this lesson, students will examine the principles of journalistic objectivity and advocacy journalism through the life and legacy of Ruben Salazar and investigate the complex factors that contribute to bias in reporting.

        Time Allotment

        90 to 120 minutes + Assignments

        Learning Objectives

        Students will:

        • Examine the life and journalism of Ruben Salazar
        • Consider the principles of journalistic objectivity and advocacy journalism and the social, economic, and political factors that contribute to journalistic bias
        • Understand the the role that objectivity and bias play in reporting today
        • Compare and contrast how multiple news outlets and journalists report on a news story


        Introductory Activity


        Time: 10 Minutes

        Summary: Students will examine the concept of “objectivity” and develop working definitions for the term. They will begin to consider and discuss the role of objectivity in journalism, if it is an achievable (or desirable) goal and the ways that personal perspective and preconceptions can lead to bias. In preparation for viewing the film module, the activity will conclude with a brief introduction to the concept of New Journalism.

        • Write the word objectivity on the board and ask students to think about what it means to be “objective”. Instruct the class to free-write for one or two minutes about “objectivity” using the following prompts: Have you heard the term before – if so, in what context? What does it mean to you?
        • Ask students to share their thoughts with a partner and together, create a working definition for the term.
        • Invite volunteers to share their definitions. Using the responses from the students, develop a collective definition. Have volunteers look-up formal definitions in the dictionary and refine the class definition, as needed.
        • Ask students to give examples of circumstances where we would expect to behave with objectivity? Record their responses and discuss. Follow-up by focusing the discussion on journalism:
        1. Do we expect journalists to be objective? Why or why not?
        2. In your opinion, how objective is the news you watch, read, or hear?
        3. What are some factors that could impact a reporter’s ability to report objectively? (e.g. class, race, gender, connection to the community being reported on, the prejudice of sources and witnesses, the culture in the newsroom, economic and political pressures, etc.) Note: Record the responses to this question on the board to refer to later in the lesson.
        4. Do you believe it possible for journalists to be objective? Why or why not?
        5. Is it a good idea for journalists to try to achieve “journalistic objectivity”? What would be the alternative?
        • Explain: In the 1950’s and 60’s, many journalists were beginning to ask the same questions that we are discussing today. The civil rights movement challenged the status quo and brought to the fore the ongoing national debate over racial, economic, and gender-based discrimination in all areas of public life. The principle of journalistic objectivity also came under harsh scrutiny from activists and journalists who questioned the neutrality of a press populated almost entirely by white men. The journalist Ruben Salazar came to prominence during this period. He became a trailblazer in a new style of advocacy and civic journalism that requires the journalist to immerse her/himself in the story and clearly declare her/his agenda and non-objective point of view in the interest of positive social change.
        • Distribute Student Handout A: Who is Ruben Salazar?, and have students review the brief summary on Ruben Salazar’s life and career in preparation for viewing the film module. (Tip: If class time is limited, this handout can be distributed in advance of the lesson as homework.)

        Learning Activities

        Time: 20 Minutes
        Film Module: Man in the Middle
        You will need: Computers with Internet access, multimedia projector, writing paper, pens
        Summary: Students will view the film modules and make note of quotes and moments that resonate with the group discussion on journalistic objectivity and bias.

        • Instruct students to be active viewers while the screening the film module and to make note of any quotes, scenes, or events that relate to the group discussion from Activity 1, using the following prompts:
        1. What are Ruben Salazar and his colleagues’ attitudes toward objectivity in journalism?
        2. What types of bias does Salazar encounter when pursuing stories?
        3. How is Salazar’s style of reporting different from his colleagues?
        4. What is the reaction to his approach to journalism?
        • Discuss their notes and feedback after the film and ask them for specific instances from the film that speak to the themes of objectivity and bias. Discussions prompts:
        1. What surprised you most when you watched the module?
        2. What are some factors that contributed to journalistic bias in the newsroom where Ruben Salazar worked?
        3. Ruben Salazar covered the Denver Youth Conference in 1969. What was his attitude toward the participants at the conference? Do you think Salazar’s own experiences and perceptions biased his perception of the event and people who attended? Why or why not? Can you give examples?
        4. What was the turning point for Salazar?
        5. Did his approach to reporting change? In what way?
        6. What did Salazar mean when he said that it was “foolish to think we could melt into the mythical melting pot”? Do you agree with him? Why/why not?
        7. How did his attitude to assimilation change?
        8. How did television reporting change the impact of his work?
        9. What was the reaction of his Hispanic audience? How did he feel about their response? Why do you think he enjoyed the hate mail?
        10. Why did Salazar’s approach to reporting the killing of the Sanchez brothers upset the establishment? What did the police mean when they said that the information he was reporting was “dangerous” to the minds of the residents of the barrio?
        11. What was at the heart of Ruben Salazar’s journalistic ethics?
        12. Do you agree that freedom of speech is limited?
        13. If Ruben Salazar was alive today, what opinion do you think he would have of contemporary journalism?

        Time: 30 Minutes
        Summary: Using the film module and Ruben Salazar’s own journey as a springboard, students will examine the current state of journalism and the role that objectivity and bias play in reporting.

        • Explain that the debate over journalistic objectivity and ethical reporting that Ruben Salazar engaged in during his career, is still alive today. Working in groups we will examine the current state of journalism by looking at a news story through the lens of several news sources.
        • Divide the class into research groups and ask each group to select a current affairs story to investigate. (Students can identify their own story or a list of options can be provided.)
        • Instruct each group to identify news stories on their topic from 3-5 different sources (including different media platforms such as TV news, newspapers, magazines, blogs, etc.) and compare contrast their reporting of the story. Use the following prompts to guide their research:
        1. What aspects of the reporting are facts, what is opinion, and what is conjecture?
        2. Does the story have an agenda, and if so, what is it?
        3. Is the reporter transparent about her/his opinion on the issue, or does she/he take an “objective” position?
        4. How does the presentation of facts differ in each news source?
        • Ask the students to research the reporter and the news outlet to better understand if/how the story was influenced by the values, perspectives or interests of the individuals and institutions reporting on it.
        • Each group can present their findings to the class, or groups can pair-up and share their research and conclusions in peer-to-peer discussions.
        • Conclude the lesson with a class discussion:
        1. What surprised you most during this lesson?
        2. Did your understanding of or opinion about journalism change during the lesson? In what way?
        3. Do you think journalism has changed since Ruben Salazar was a reporter? Can you give some examples?
        4. If Ruben Salazar was alive today, how do you think he would have reported on this issue?


        Culminating Activity


        1) Assign students to reflect on their group research and consider how they would report on the issue. Ask them to imagine that they are reporters and write an article on the issue (they can support their writing with additional research). If time allows, students can write two articles: one in the style of “objective” journalism, and one in the style of advocacy journalism.

        2) Assign students to write a one-page reflection on an opinion they hold on a different issue, and how they would keep that opinion or bias out of their reporting and writing. For instance, an opinion about climate change, could impact a story on legislation to limit carbon emissions. Students should be diligent about accurately and fully reflecting both sides of an issue and sticking to the facts to help avoid writing a biased story.



        Assimilation and Identity:

        Screen the full film and discuss how pressure to assimilate shaped Ruben Salazar’s identity and his approach to his work. How did his position as a “man in the middle” benefit and harm him?

        • Engage the class in a discussion of Salazar’s quote: “There's no such thing as a real Mexican-American, the hyphen strips both words of their meaning”? Ask students to consider their relationship to the American identity. Do the students’ own identities include a “hyphen”? Do they see a multifaceted identity as a positive or a negative? Does the “hyphen” diminish or strengthen either identity? What does it mean to be “American”?
        • Have students research the role that assimilation has played in their community. What impact has assimilation had in their family, school, and the way they see themselves? Students can interview members of the community, peers, and family members and develop a multi-media presentation that illustrates their findings.


        Ethnic Media and American Identity:

        Ruben Salazar was at the forefront of the rise of ethnic journalism. In April 1970, he left his full-time reporting position for a job as news director of KMEX, a fledgling Spanish-language TV station, staying on at The Times’ in the new role of part-time columnist. While many questioned the seemingly downward career move, Salazar’s KMEX position allowed him to provide news about Latinos for Latinos. Today, ethnic journalism and media are major forces in the media landscape. Networks like Telemundo and Black Entertainment Television reach millions of viewers and Univision regularly challenges and surpasses viewership of the five major English-language networks. Have students examine the social and cultural changes that have led to the rise of ethnic media, with a focus on ethnic journalism. What does this trend indicate about the American identity, and how does this targeted news media impact the nature of the reporting in its news programs?


        Ruben Salazar and the Chicano/a Civil Rights Movement:

        Ruben Salazar had a complex relationship with the Chicano Civil Rights movement. He was critical of much of the leadership and dubious of their agenda, but he also understood the brutality of institutionalized racism that sparked the movement. Guide students in an examination of the causes and impact of the Chicano Movement in the 1960s and 1970s. Have them compare their research with the portrayal of the movement’s in contemporaneous press coverage. Was the coverage factual? Did the reporters have a point of view or agenda when covering the stories? Compare the coverage of the Chicano/a Movement to the coverage of a social movement today. Do you think today’s coverage of social movements is more or less accurate? How has digital media changed the way social movements are reported on? What role does citizen journalists, bloggers, and social media in the portrayal of activism?


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